Olafur Eliasson

Dallas Museum of Art

Through March 15, 2009
by Lane Relyea

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      Olafur Eliasson
      One-way colour tunnel, 2007
      Courtesy the artist; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; and neugerriemschneider, Berlin
      © 2007 Olafur Eliasson
      Photo Dallas Museum of Art

      View Gallery

      The common refrain among critics of Olafur Eliasson's work is that it's simple and yet at the same time spectacular. That is, not George Lucas spectacular but morning-mist-rising-from-a-still-lake spectacular. At once majestic and unassuming. Nature is Eliasson's overriding analogy. His modest palette consists primarily of mixing human perception with space, light, air and water, albeit augmented with frequent helpings of industrial-grade electrical and mechanical jerry-rigging. Also required is a small army of studio assistants, preparators and temp labor to install his work — an army that swelled into an occupying force with the arrival at the Dallas Museum of Art of Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, a traveling survey of the artist's almost-20-year career.

      Nature used to be a bad word in the art world, or at least passing things off as natural tended to arouse suspicion. Artists and writers agreed that the more critical viewpoint sees everything as constructed; that ideology hides biases and vested interests behind a façade of natural inevitability. But these are supposedly post-ideological times, when a technological mindset, frank pragmatism and functionality trump all. Indeed, critics applaud Eliasson for his practical, DIY bent. He leaves the electrical cables and other hardware he uses exposed for all to see; the visual effects he pulls off are easily traceable back to their means of production. This in itself, many argue, endows Eliasson's work with a measure of self-reflexivity, even criticality. He makes us conscious of the mechanisms involved in our acts of perception — this according to many scholarly heavyweights who've hopped aboard the Eliasson bandwagon, including Daniel Birnbaum, Jonathan Crary, Pamela Lee, Anne Wagner, not to mention the show's organizer, Madeleine Grynsztejn.

      I frankly don't get it: to me Eliasson seems to treat perception in an exceedingly abstract and aestheticizing way, dissolving formidable institutional settings into tartly privatized experiences divorced from any larger social and historical context. Imagine an arena-rock roadie gone creative, a Dave Mathews Band concert only minus Dave and the rest of the band. Sensation hasn't suffered this much bracketing since the heyday of modernist painting (which, truth be told, when compared to Eliasson's post-medium spectacles looks very much anchored in a historical context, that of its medium-bound tradition: "He wants to be Velazquez so he paints stripes," a young Michael Fried once blurted about his friend Frank Stella, thereby suggesting how the painter's canvases could be used to measure the severe degradation and brutality that modern industrialization and disenchantment had imposed on even the most rarified strata of Western art).

      Granted, the mess of the social world does intrude on Take Your Time, but in ways I don't think Eliasson can take credit for. I happened to see the show when it was installed at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where Eliasson's prim geometries and pure hues were little match for the mob behavior Manhattanites robustly assume around art. To "take your time" at MoMA means suffering much pushing and shoving. The white screen stretched taut around the interior of Eliasson's 360˚ room for all colours (2002) was splattered with hand and shoe prints, thus inserting gonzo graffiti-like urban iconography into the artist's otherwise sterile light show. The DMA was comparatively empty during my visit, guards outnumbering patrons three to one, which meant that local visitors, on the average more intimidated by art than their New York counterparts, were even further obliged to tip-toe around the show in seeming deference to the work's overly serious sense of itself.

      But social life, and how it’s currently made to accord with strict information-age dictates, seems to seep far more deeply into the crackling circuitry of Eliasson's oeuvre. Indeed, my sense is that it's precisely Eliasson's relation to larger contexts that has made him the reigning darling of the zeitgeist. His art doesn't transcend its circumstances, it certainly doesn't critique them; but it does supply a flattering if distorted reflection of the dominant order of things. Even at its most aloof and abstract, his work is a symptom of its times.

      First of all, there's the iconography. Nature might be a favored theme for Eliasson, but he doesn't render landscapes — again, that would mean having to negotiate traditional artistic genres that are too historically and culturally varied (landscapes being conceived differently at different times and places). Instead Eliasson goes straight for the basics of wind, light, water and matter, a kind of universal DNA of creation that seems to transcend place and scale (water as an issue for both global ice flows and interior plumbing; light as a product of solar energy and halogen bulbs) just as it stretches to the outer limits of time. Indeed, some works look prehistoric (Moss wall, 1994; the cave-like Multiple Grotto, 2004; the aerial photographs in The glacier series, 1999), while others look futuristic (the 30-plus yellowish monofrequency lights of Room for one colour, 1997; or the complexly crystalline orb and passageway made of stainless steel and mirrors in Inverted Berlin Sphere, 2005, and One-way colour tunnel, 2007). Nature here serves as a borderless esperanto well-suited for an increasingly international art world, a global language — or rather a language of globalization — that rhetorically dresses up universal aspirations as simple, innocent and inhering. Not unlike Google's simple-as-crayons web design, or Coke’s desire to teach the world to sing.

      Beyond iconography, Eliasson's art can be seen as spectacular affirmation of the new conditions that underlie art production and exhibition. Long gone are the days of opposition and stalemate between the artist's studio, with its presumed autonomy, and the recuperating museum, with its permanent collection representing "official" culture. These formerly armored enclosures have been penetrated, their practices and forms dispersed; superseding them today are more temporal, elapsing events, spaces of fluid interchange between objects, activities and people. For the museum looking beyond the audio-tour, interactive video kiosk or lounge-like reading room for ways to make their environs more like electronic entertainment centers, Eliasson is a godsend. Whereas Frank Gehry triumphed in Bilbao by making the museum's monumental exterior seem as ceaselessly mobile as a waterfall, Eliasson bestows the same blessing on the interior, turning on the water hoses, flickering the lights, transforming walls into mutating organisms, covering almost everything in mirrors.

      Just as exhibition venues today increasingly rely on residencies and commissions, sites of art production have likewise become more mobile (in this way the art studio follows the trend in capitalist production per se under conditions of globalization – i.e., the change-over to on-demand or "just-in-time" production, to out-sourcing, temporary work teams and other hallmarks of the new economy and flexible accumulation). Eliasson is exemplary in that, instead of production, he focuses on the project, around which a work team is quickly assembled and just as quickly disbanded upon the project's completion. Old-fashioned studio production mirrored the old economy's factory, both aligned with the permanent address and dedicated land line and specializing in the stockpiling of inventory; but today's project-oriented art sides with the cellphone and the mobile operator. (Is it unfair to say that post-studio artists avoid the problems of overproduction – i.e. back inventories of unsold paintings eating up costly studio space?)

      Perhaps the artist’s seemless integration of two former antagonists—the individual and society’s techno-institutional leviathan—most recommends Eliasson for the position of court artist in today’s global economy. It wasn't that long ago that cultural leftists considered institutions like museums as basically no different from major media broadcasters, public schooling, even the military, all agents of official propaganda, all part of one big "ideological state apparatus" that assimilated or "interpolated" citizens by dictating the very terms of subjectivity. Today such an implacable, monolithic view of society has faded; our more DIY culture no longer constructs the world for us but rather asks that each of us "do it ourselves." Culture now seemingly resides in increasingly corporate-owned mega-libraries, like natural resources waiting to be mined by enterprising consumers. And a technology and architecture now rise up around the individual's mobile body, an apparatus of cellphones, laptops, iPods, frequent-flyer and other consumer-membership rewards. How fitting, then, that Eliasson so often chooses titles for his works that address the individual viewer directly: Your compound view, Your sun machine, Your windless arrangement, Your inverted veto, Your blue afterimage exposed, Your circumspection disclosed, Your strange certainty still kept, Your only real thing is time, etc. Even the name of the exhibition is a grammatical imperative. Maybe I don't want to take my time. "'Our,' 'my' and 'your' are consumer empowerment words," explains the business section of The New York Times. Similarly obsessed with the consumer, or I mean to say art patron, the DMA’s free brochure for Take Your Time asks the reader, "How has your experience of this space been altered?" alongside a floorplan drawing of the exhibition layout. "Does a particular color linger on your eyes? What do you feel and hear? What does it smell like to you?"

      At which point I have a question of my own: is it possible to get a restraining order issued against a work of art?

      I can't help but feel that one reason why museums like the DMA accord a relatively young artist like Olafur Eliasson canonical status is because members of their consumer base who otherwise would be suspicious of Web 2.0 or GPS tracking systems or other forms of you-you-you technology still love his art. My parents love Olafur Eliasson for chrissakes, just as they like to rock out to Dave Mathews. But when I show them a picture of a Frank Stella painting from 50 years ago, they look at me like I just shot the dog.

      Lane Relyea is Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University.

      + 1 Comment
      Ina
      Mar 1, 2013 | 1:11pm

      This was very refreshing to read.
      Thank you

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